BY WARREN BOROSON
Leonard Slatkin’s new book, “Conducting Business: Unveiling the Mystery About the Maestro” (Amadeus Press, 2012), contains a few bombshells. Slatkin, 68, is a respected American conductor who has led a variety of famous orchestras, such as the BBC Symphony, the Royal Philharmonic, and the Detroit Symphony, and he’s noted for having made the St. Louis Symphony one of the best in the country. He’s also championed American composers—and won seven Grammy Awards.
Back in the 1960s, he writes, the New York Philharmonic hired its assistant conductors through an international competition. One day Slatkin, who was then studying at Juilliard, got a phone call inviting him to meet with the organizers of the contest. Yes, they wanted him to enter the contest—“but there was a significant string attached.”
Almost every winner in recent years had been from a foreign country. It was time for an American to win, Slatkin was told. “They informed me that if I entered, I would be assured of winning and would become an assistant conductor to Leonard Bernstein.”
Believing that the contest was “rigged,” Slatkin never applied.
In his book, Slatkin is pretty forthright. He refers to his “less-than-successful tenure in Washington,” conducting the National Symphony (his contract was abruptly not renewed). He hints at personal indiscretions: around the year 2000, “[he] engaged in activities that should not have happened, and perhaps would not have if [he] had realized the impact of my actions on [his] family, friends and orchestra" (he was “searching for companionship away from home”). His first two marriages, he also mentions, didn’t last long.
He also had trouble conducting “La traviata” at the Met, perhaps because he wasn’t that familiar with it. The diva, Angela Gheorghiu, told everyone (except Slatkin) that she was unhappy with him. And she sang any way she wanted: She “distorted phrases to the point where no one could anticipate what she would do. She would hold notes longer than her colleagues onstage, disrupting the ensemble.” And so forth.
The reviews were “downright mean.” Slatkin’s agent advised him to walk away from the opera—and he did. “The conductor was expendable,” he writes, “but the soprano was not.”
Overall, he comes off as a modest and likeable person, with a discriminating taste in music. He doesn’t like Bruckner (bravo!); and among his favorite pieces are Beethoven’s Opus 132; the slow movement of Brahms’ C Minor Piano Quartet; and Schubert’s two-cello quintet.
He’s also a good story-teller.
Two composers, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner, didn’t like each other. One afternoon they ran into each other. Steiner asked, “Erich, how come my music is getting better and better and yours is getting worse and worse?” Korngold’s reply: “I am stealing from you and you are stealing from me.”
While some of the book is boring—I wasn’t enthralled by the history of the Hollywood String Quartet, for example—there’s a lot that would appeal not just to would-be conductors, but to musicians and music lovers in general.
For examples of this, and videos of Slatkin conducting and lecturing, continue on to the next page.